Carolyn Cooper: Derek Walcott’s Loose Tongue

Derek Walcott.jpg

From Carolyn Cooper’s column for Jamaica’s Gleaner.

In 1970, Derek Walcott wrote a philosophical introduction to a collection of his plays. The title of the essay, What The Twilight Says: An Overture, is intriguing. There, Walcott recalls his youthful days in St Lucia learning the craft of writing in the 1940s.

“I sighed up a continent of envy when I studied English literature, yet, when I tried to talk as I wrote, my voice sounded affected or too raw. The tongue became burdened, like an ass trying to shift its load. I was taught to trim my tongue as a particular tool which could as easily have been ordered from England as an awl or a chisel … .”

Theatrically, Walcott puts on the mask of a young man struggling to find his tongue – both voice and language. But the accomplished poet is no longer tongue-tied. The mature Walcott demonstrates his complete mastery of the language of English literature, both sound and substance. The ironic tension between what is recalled – the raw tongue – and how it is called to mind – the images tripping off the tongue – that is the pleasure of Walcott’s craft.

‘FAR ABOVE ITS SUBJECTS’

In What The Twilight Says, Walcott gives a frank account of his lifelong quest to fashion a literary language that sounded like his natural speaking voice. He confesses his alienation from the very subjects of his poetry, his own St Lucian people: ” . . . The voice of the inner language was reflective and mannered, as far above its subjects as that sun which would never set until its twilight became a metaphor for the withdrawal of Empire and the beginning of our doubt.”

That’s quite a tight knot of images. Hear how I unravel it: the “inner language” of Walcott’s poetry is like an absentee landlord distantly imposing authority on its subjects. In the very act of “reflective and mannered” writing about his people – his subjects – the poet assumes the imperious pose of coloniser.

But Walcott is also forced to subject himself to the demands of the language of empire. Language is the medium of ideology. It summons the ghosts of the past. As an agent of literary domination of his own people, the poet himself becomes implicated in the imperial enterprise.

ASININE FICTIONS

The setting sun of empire does not automatically allow the Caribbean intellectual to find his tongue. The poet as colonial subject often becomes the victim of self-doubt. Can he speak for himself? Is he ready to play the lead role in the drama of his own life? Or must he continue to inhabit the asinine fictions of congenital inferiority?

By contrast, the vast majority of Caribbean people have no such anxieties. They simply refuse to trim their tongue. Walcott’s St Lucian subjects and their confident cousins across the region are, quite often, well aware of the distance between the patriarchal language of empire and their nurturing mother tongues.

As our own Jamaican poet and public intellectual Mutabaruka so wickedly observes, “The language we talk we can’t write; and the language we write we can’t talk.” Mutabaruka speaks to the compounded failure of the educational system in Jamaica to a) teach literacy in the mother tongue, Jamaican; and b) ensure that all students can, in fact, competently speak the official language of literacy, English.

A SEDUCTIVE MISTRESS

Spellbound by the English literary tradition, the youthful Walcott is, at first, unable to loosen his tongue. Eventually, he stops playing the ass. He finds another language to express the full range of his artistic sensibility. Walcott writes about this discovery in the third person:

“On the verandah, with his back to the street, he began marathon poems on Greek heroes which ran out of breath, lute songs, heroic tragedies, but these rhythms, the Salvation Army parodies, the Devil’s Christmas songs, and the rhythms of the street itself were entering the pulse-beat of the wrist.”

The theatre of the street is a seductive mistress who lures the poet from his more respectable muse. Or, at the very least, forces the muse at home to dance to a different beat. Pure slackness! And that potent image of rhythms in the wrist confirms the value of literacy as a medium for transmitting and transforming oral knowledge.

The imported tools of empire made the young Walcott envious, alienating him from his own culture. He would later claim both English and his own St Lucian Creole as intimate languages to voice his distinctive Caribbean identity. Derek Walcott has written 24 volumes of poetry, 25 plays and several other books. He has received numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize for literature. His tongue and wrist became very loose indeed.

Derek Walcott is the most celebrated creative writer to have studied in the Department of Literatures in English (formerly, just English) at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Generations of poets, playwrights and novelists were cultivated in that department. It’s a roll call of distinction.

Edward Baugh, Mervyn Morris, Slade Hopkinson, Jean D’Costa, Velma Pollard, Dennis Scott, Rachael Manley, Wayne Brown, Rawle Gibbons, Kendel Hippolyte, Robert Lee, Merle Collins, Kwame Dawes, Curdella Forbes, David Heron, Marlon James, Tanya Shirley, Aishon Hutchinson, Kei Miller, Joanne Hillhouse, Ann-Margaret Lim and so many more! The poet/dramatist is dead. Long live poetry, drama, fiction and all the arts!

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